Last year was a tumultuous one. Our nation’s race problems, which have often been underplayed and ignored, refused to remain unseen and silent any longer. The race “issue” forced itself onto the front page of major newspapers, onto TV screens and into conversations among friends, families and strangers.
The race “issue” is not a new problem, but it came as a surprise to many who believed we live in a post-racism America. The frustration seen in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere was something I could relate to when I was a student at the University of Michigan. Being a Black male at this University was not an easy task. I felt isolated. People expected me to be the spokesman for my race. Often, classmates assumed I was only there because of a sports scholarship or affirmative action. Despite these challenges, I was able to seek comfort and find community and understanding in Iota Phi Theta, S.I.B.S and a supportive group of friends.
For these reasons among others, I decided in 2010 to join Teach For America. I knew how it felt to be the only one to not have a role model in the classroom (and in other social and professional settings) who looked like you. I was determined to join other dedicated educators of color in changing this reality for the next generation of students. As a corps member, I taught elementary school for two years in Houston public schools. During this time I learned I had not only an aptitude for teaching, but also the patience for working hard and learning quickly. As a result, my students made immense gains; however, I longed to make an impact in my hometown of Detroit. So after my two years in Texas, I returned to Detroit to teach and later act as a school administrator at a charter school in Northwest Detroit.
Being a teacher and a school leader are the hardest things I’ve ever done in my 28 years of life. But with all challenges, the reward is well worth the struggles. At the end of the school year, I asked my Detroit sixth-graders what they wanted to be when they grew up. And I was overwhelmed when so many of them responded with “a teacher … just like you.”
Many of my students at the charter school were Black males. If one of them was having behavioral issues, they would often request to see me and I would say, “Why did you come see me? Why can you behave with me but not with your other teachers?” and in so many words they discussed how I was “different” and how I “just understood them.” To them, having a Black male educator meant having a teacher who knew what it was like to be them — not only did I look like my students, but I also lived through many of the same challenges they faced.
I am no longer in the classroom, but the experiences and feelings I gained during my time as a teacher have never left me; I am still advocating for educational equity for our underserved Black and brown children. Through my new role as an educational consultant and as a mentor to young Black boys, I continue my work in transforming the education system and the lives of those who are often ignored and misunderstood by our society.
Teaching is not for everyone, but anyone can be an advocate for students. You can volunteer at your local school, become a mentor, get involved in youth activities during the weekends or provide employment opportunities. And if you are interested in teaching, there isn’t a better way to make a difference in the lives of children than through Teach for America.
Children cannot be what they cannot see. It’s our duty as adults to ensure they are exposed to and represented in diverse images, texts and the media. Just imagine the young minds who are dreaming of greater futures thanks to images of President Obama, Misty Copeland, John Boyega and educators who look like them. It is imperative that we focus on the latter and increase diversity in the teaching profession. As the nation’s student population grows more brown, Black and diverse in other ways each day, we need adults in schools — at every level — to reflect these changes and be the positive role models our students need.
John Ray is a 2010 alum of the University of Michigan and a 2010 Teach For America corps member. He is currently a consultant specializing in nonprofit and education sectors.